Shlomo Dubnov, an associate professor at University of California, San Diego, had an unusually busy schedule the first week of May.
On Monday, he checked out the “Palestinian wall” erected on campus, then attended a pro-Palestinian spoken word performance and a lecture on “Palestine: Past, Present & Future.”
Wednesday, it was a pro-Palestinian “Speak Out!”
Thursday, there was the lecture by Alison Weir, who, according to her website, is an expert in the “massive ethnic cleansing accomplished in Israel’s War of Independence” — all organized by the UCSD Muslim Students Association and co-sponsored by the UCSD Office of the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs.
It was Justice in Palestine Week, and Dubnov, a musicologist and self-described secular Jew, was monitoring the activities as head of the local chapter of the pro-Israel group Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He felt offended by much of what he saw and heard. He was especially disturbed by advertising for the event and by publicity on the MSA’s website listing the school as a co-sponsor. “I think that Jewish students should have the right to feel offended by what’s going on on the campuses,” he said, “and they have to find ways to be organized and respond.”
But should Jews make a federal case out of it?
That question has been hanging since last year, when the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights expanded its coverage to include Jews among those protected by Title VI of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. Dubnov is answering the question in a markedly different way than one of his colleagues at UC’s Santa Cruz campus, where a faculty member’s complaint about anti-Israel activities has set off a federal probe.
Until October 2010, Jews had been excluded from the civil rights law’s protection. The language of that statute protects ethnic or racial groups from discrimination, intimidation and harassment sponsored by or even institutionally tolerated by a school receiving federal funds. But for the last several years, Jews were viewed as an exclusively religious group, until the OCR reinterpreted the law to cover “any discrete religious group that shares, or is perceived to share, ancestry or ethnic characteristics (e.g., Muslims or Sikhs)…” including, Jewish students.
Now in response to a complaint filed by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a faculty member at UC Santa Cruz, the OCR has launched its first formal investigation into anti-Semitism on campus. The probe, announced last March, is focused on incidents reported to have occurred there over the past eight years. While the investigation is not yet complete, the first results are already in: Jews on and off campus are publicly berating each other over criticism of Israel on college campuses and at what point this criticism becomes anti-Semitic — and when it does, should we call in the feds?
No, according to Kenneth Stern, director of anti-Semitism and extremism for the American Jewish Committee — or at least not in this case. He charges that some people “believe the only way to ‘protect’ Jewish students is by imposing censorship.”
“While some of the recent allegations… might well raise a claim under Title VI, many others simply seek to silence anti-Israel discourse and speakers,” Stern declared in a statement co-authored with Cary Nelson, head of the American Association of University Professors. “This approach is not only unwarranted under Title VI, it is dangerous.”
Yes, said Kenneth Marcus, a director at the Institute for Jewish & Community Research. A former OCR assistant secretary who helped push for the Title VI revision, Marcus took Stern and Nelson to task in widely published online comments and in a note to the Forward.
“Ken Stern has done a lot of good work for the Jewish community but his statement with Cary Nelson was a doozy,” he wrote. “It will unquestionably make it harder for Jewish students to get protection from campus-based anti-Semitism if the American Jewish Committee is perceived as being against them. The AJC should distance itself from Stern’s statement if it wants to maintain credibility in this area.”
“Difficult to understand,” said the Zionist Organization of America’s president, Morton Klein, in an open letter blasting Stern and Nelson’s statement. “In fact, it’s shocking.”
“The only voices being stifled on our campus are Tammi’s, mine and Jewish students who complain about the problem of campus anti-Semitism,” lamented Rossman-Benjamin’s husband, Ilan Benjamin, a chemistry professor at UCSC. Benjamin told the Forward that he and Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew studies at UCSD, have been “trying unsuccessfully for about eight years to have the university even acknowledge that there is a problem.”
“It’s tragic,” said Rossman-Benjamin. It was her 29-page letter, filed in 2009, that triggered the OCR’s investigation into UCSC, one of several California public campuses where Middle Eastern politics have erupted in confrontations ranging from highly vocal to allegedly physical, with incidents of swastika painting and website hacking.
Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint focused especially on the role of university units or academic departments as co-sponsors of campus events and seminars that she claims went “beyond legitimate criticism of Israel,” using rhetoric that “demonizes Israel, compares Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, calls for dismantling of the Jewish state and holds Israel to an impossible double standard.”
In one instance, she reported, a film-and-panel-discussion event was co-sponsored by Cowell College — a prestigious UCSC interdisciplinary humanities center — and several avowedly anti-Israel organizations. The film, “Israel 101,” Rossman-Benjamin wrote, promoted “falsehoods,” among them, that Israel is “entirely responsible for the plight of the Palestinians and their violence against Israel”; that Israel “is guilty of ethnic cleansing,” and that Israel’s security barrier “is called a ‘hate wall’ and an ‘apartheid wall’ rather than acknowledged as a protective measure that Israel has been forced to undertake to protect innocent civilians from suicide bombings and other terror attacks.”
According to Rossman-Benjamin, the film also claimed that “Jews in America wield excessive power over American foreign policy.”
The panel discussion that followed “was clearly pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel,” she reported. One panelist, she said, urged the students to engage in anti-Israel political activity, such as demanding that the university divest from Israel.
For Rossman-Benjamin, a key point was the impact of Cowell College’s co-sponsorship of the event on Jewish students. Her complaint cited a letter that one Jewish student wrote the administration prior to the event in protest. “As a Jew, Israel is central to my identity, culture, religion and ethnicity,” the student said. “To claim Israel is illegitimate and should be revoked is hurtful and offensive beyond words.”
At the same time, Rossman-Benjamin has launched pro-Israel counter-programming of her own. In 2006, working with Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and local community groups as cosponsors, she brought in conservative radio host Dennis Prager for a pro-Israel event. As for sponsorship from the university, “As far as I remember, my husband (the head of our SPME group) asked several university departments and colleges to co-sponsor (at no cost), and they all refused,” Rossman-Benjamin wrote in an e-mail. “We did it with our own money (i.e. money we raised outside the university).”
Such counter-programming underlines the question: Is the remedy for speech that is offensive to many Jews on campus — even speech carrying the school’s imprimatur — more and better speech? Or do inflammatory verbal attacks on Israel generate an atmosphere of hostility toward Jews as a group that leads to harassment and intimidation, and to the need for enforcement of federal civil rights protections on campus?
Anti-Semitism has clearly surfaced at UCSD through two graffiti episodes.
One incident in 2008, cited by Rossman-Benjamin in her complaint, involved a depiction of planes flying into the twin towers joined by a Jewish star, marked on a hallway near a classroom used by the Communities Studies Program, which pro-Israel activists cited as a center for extreme anti-Israel expressions.
In a second, more recent incident, a UCSC bathroom was marked with swastikas and the message: “Blood will be shed @ UCSC on 4/20/11.” The graffiti appeared immediately after the announcement that OCR had opened its anti-Semitism investigation.
The chancellor’s office condemned both incidents.
Both the school and OCR are treading terra incognita in grappling with just how Title VI will now be applied to Jews, and in particular to discourse on Israel. Perhaps because of this, the formal statement issued by UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal in reply to questions from the Forward evinced something less than certitude.
“I am confident that OCR’s investigation will ultimately conclude that UCSC diligently enforces laws, policies and practices that protect our students’ civil rights,” Blumenthal said. “But I also believe that our review of the matter with OCR will provide us with an opportunity to examine our relevant policies and practices to ensure that is the case.”
Ironically, UCSC is one of the top American campuses in Jewish enrollment; 21.6% of the school’s students — about 2,600 — are Jewish, according to the UCSC Hillel. Hillel interim executive director Sheila Baumgarten told the Forward that Hillel sees “about 1,000 kids at one thing or another,” and between 40 and 120 show up for Sabbath dinner regularly. Meantime, Chancellor Blumenthal — a Jew whose wife, an attorney, is a Brandeis University graduate who has taught at the Hebrew University — is proud to point out that Santa Cruz is the only UC school north of Los Angeles to offer a degree in Jewish studies.
“I can’t speak for the students past or present concerning this issue,” said Nathaniel Deutsch, co-director of the Center for Jewish Studies, in a note to the Forward. “In my three years at UCSC, specifically, I have not witnessed any examples of the institution either encouraging or abetting others to create an anti-Semitic climate or a hostile environment to Jews.”
Shira Bogin, a third-year anthropology and art history double-major at UCSC, is aware of the OCR investigation and admits that exposure to critical views of Israel on campus made her feel uncomfortable — natural for someone whose family on her father’s side lives in Israel.
Far from being a land of conflict, Bogin said, Israel was for her always a visit to grandparents, sunny beaches and good times — until her first trip alone to Israel under the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, accessed through UCSC Hillel. This trip made her aware of Israel’s divided population. A friend on the trip introduced her to the Olive Tree Initiative, a campus program that engages students in Israeli-Palestinian dialogues. On her return, Bogin became involved, attending Committee for Justice in Palestine events, such as the showing of the film “Occupation 101,” which presented “a perspective that was hard to hear,” she recalled. “We had our disagreements, but they got talked out in a mature way.”
The Olive Tree Initiative recently came under fire when it was revealed that the group met secretly with a Hamas figure on a trip to Israel and asked students to keep the encounter under wraps. “It reflects poorly on the leadership,” Bogin said of that particular incident (in which she was not involved), but she nonetheless endorses the concept of bringing together Jewish and Muslim students. “It was healthy,” she said, “and incredibly rewarding for me to know somebody who feels about that region as emotionally and passionately as I do from a different perspective.”
For Lauren Kasner, a third-year math major, the UCSC atmosphere is less benign. Kasner, a previously non-political person from a Reform Jewish family, told the Forward that she became involved with the Santa Cruz Israel Action Committee in her freshman year because, “I liked the people, and it was a good way to meet others.” The infusion of Middle East politics into some parts of the academic structure became apparent to her when her roommate, a non-Jew, returned one day from a class in the UCSC community studies program talking about how Israeli soldiers “lacked morality” —something the roommate said her teacher had told the class.
The community studies program also came up in Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint, which alleged that an instructor in that program offered “unreferenced, grossly distorted, egregiously false” information, such as that “Israeli massacres are often accompanied by sexual assault, particularly of pregnant women as a symbolic way of uprooting the children from the mother.”
According to the UCSC website, the community studies major was discontinued in spring 2010, following “a lengthy period of concern.”
Kasner sees the complaint by Rossman-Benjamin (who is her mentor) and the OCR investigation as justified. Following a trip to Israel sponsored by Hasbara Fellowships, a program of the Orthodox outreach group Aish HaTorah, Kasner is now a co-president of the Santa Cruz Israel Action Committee. She views her own pro-Israel activities on campus as crucial. “If I wasn’t doing what we’re doing,” she told the Forward, “the entire student body would be hearing only about Israel being immoral and killing babies.”
Meanwhile, the “hostile environment” question may be cutting in two directions. Hasnain Nazar, a politics major completing his last year at UCSC, and president of the UCSC Muslim Students Association, told the Forward that he feels “basically scared.” Teachers are increasingly shying away from classroom discussions of Middle Eastern issues, in his experience, because they might lead to controversy. He rarely attends political events anymore because “I want to have an academic career,” he said. “I don’t want to be labeled a ‘terrorist’ because I attended some event.”
Nonetheless, his MSA chapter recently put together an “Interactive Interfaith Dialogue” with a panel that included a Methodist pastor, a Catholic religious studies teacher, Islamic Networks Group founder Maha ElGenaidi, and Richard Heiman of the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Relations Council. “How are we going to grow if people stay in their little bubbles?” Nazar asked.
The UCSC campus debate takes place within a special historical context for California; it was a UC campus (Berkeley) that in the 1960s gave birth to the Free Speech Movement. It was this student-led campaign, in which Jews figured prominently, that forced UC — and eventually campuses nationwide — to lift bans that had long been in place against outside political speakers on campus and against fundraising for political parties, except via the school’s officially endorsed Democratic and Republican school clubs. The movement also led to the lifting of mandatory “loyalty oaths” that had been required of faculty.
A prominent student leader of that movement, Bettina Aptheker, is today a professor of feminist studies at UCSC. She is cited in Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint as part of the institutional bias against Jews for sponsoring a program in 2004 featuring Holocaust survivor and Israel critic Hedy Epstein, “who had demonized the Jewish state and compared the Jews of Israel to Nazis in many previous talks on other university campuses.”
Aptheker’s recall of Epstein’s presentation at UCSC is rosier than Rossman-Benjamin’s (“virulently anti-Israel”), and she herself, she told the Forward, is a staunch supporter of the State of Israel whose legitimacy “is not a question.” Raised by famously Communist parents (her father was Herbert Aptheker, a prominent historian and Party intellectual), Aptheker came to embrace her Jewishness after the death of a favorite aunt and has been a member of Santa Cruz Temple Beth El for many years. In her view, though the UCSC campus is as contentious on this issue as campuses were in the anti-Vietnam War days when she took to the ramparts, it is not hostile to Jews.
The federal investigation at UCSC and legal challenges at other schools across the country reflect a new “fight-back strategy,” stated Kenneth Marcus, the former assistant secretary of education, “among Jewish community activists who are no longer willing to remain in a defensive mode when it comes to anti-Israel attacks on college campuses.”
Todd Gitlin, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, when SDS often spelled campus disruption, and now a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, takes a longer view. “The university’s existence is a tribute to the virtues of discussion as such, in the spirit of John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty,’” he told the Forward. “Jewish students, like any others, may be horrified by the opinions of others about a state they may deeply admire and identify with. They should argue back. They are, at the same time, obliged to tolerate the expression of those ideas.”
Back in San Diego, arguing back was exactly what Jewish students and faculty were doing at UCSD, according to Dubnov. His SPME chapter joined a wide coalition of Jewish community groups to counter Justice in Palestine week’s campus activities. Their pro-Israel schedule included a “Free Speech” event, a speaker from an African-American group talking about the “inappropriate use of the word ‘apartheid’ by the pro-Palestinian student groups,” a community rally and a solidarity walk.
As for the university’s co-sponsorship of the MSA’S advertising, SPME proposed that going forward, a disclaimer should be attached to event publicity that mentions the Office of the Vice Chancellor Student Affairs sponsorship — a $50 grant from an event fund given to most groups who request it — to avoid the appearance of an institutional endorsement of any group’s views.
An assistant to Vice Chancellor Penny Rue told the Forward that SPME’s suggestion was “under consideration.” It was a small victory, but part of the ongoing effort.
“We’re very persistent, and it takes a lot of work,” Dubnov explained, after returning home late in the week to his wife and six children, having attended the lecture “What Every American Should Know About Palestine,” as well as a lively presentation by former Ariel Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin. But he added, with a weary chuckle, that he did not rule out, if all efforts failed, a resort to Title VI.
Contact Rex Weiner at email@example.com
Rex Weiner is a Brooklyn-born, third-generation journalist who from 1992 to 1997 covered the entertainment industry as a staff reporter for Daily Variety, where his column, Lost and Found, appeared weekly. His articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Observer and LA Weekly, and he contributes regularly to Rolling Stone Italia. His screenwriting credits include “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” (20th Century Fox), and he was one of the first writers of the TV series “Miami Vice.” He is a founding editor of High Times magazine and a co-author of The Woodstock Census (Viking, 1979), one of the key texts analyzing the impact of the ’60s generation on American society. He is currently based in Los Angeles and in the town of Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico, where his fluent Spanish and capacity for tequila come in handy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.